Seventh Day Adventure
Football Outsiders' weekly preview for people who like their football played on Saturdays

Seventh Day Adventure: Conference Play Begins

Seventh Day Adventure: Conference Play Begins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

guest column by Ian Boyd

College football always takes a step back in Week 2 with fewer marquee games, but an early SEC contest between Mississippi State and LSU should pique interest while cross-conference battles like Oklahoma at Tennessee and Oregon at Michigan State should have big impacts on the championship race. A few other contests could prove significant in the long term -- Boise State has a real chance at going undefeated in 2015, but they have to get past BYU in Provo, Utah, for that dream to become a reality. Notre Dame has a chance to demonstrate that beating up Texas at home actually meant something when they take on Virginia in Charlottesville, and get ready for more Khaki Cam as Michigan plays another Pac-12 opponent when the Oregon State Beavers come to town.

Michigan (-17) vs. Oregon State -- 12 p.m. (ABC)

The Harbaugh Era continues with a matchup against Oregon State, who were part of a coaching carousel that sent Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen their way after former head coach Mike Riley left for Nebraska. Against this Pac-12 opponent, the Wolverines get to play at home in front of a crowd that is going to be very excited to watch their khaki-clad hero lead their troops into battle for the first time.

The advanced stats suggest that Michigan should have little problem subduing Andersen's Beavers, who weren't great last year and will be adjusting to a slightly different scheme under new offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin.

The big question is how much Jim Harbaugh's offensive coaching will improve the unit from last year's rather substandard showing. Gary Andersen is a defensive minded coach, but he's not inheriting a cupboard full of ingredients for a top unit and the Wolverines flashed some potential in the passing game in Week 1 against Utah throwing the ball to tight end Jake Butt (eight catches, 93 yards, one touchdown in Week 1) and wide receiver Amara Darboh (eight catches, 101 yards, one touchdown).

Overall Michigan Oregon State Proj. F/+ 35 70 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 82 106 When Michigan has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 61 98 2014 S&P+ 82 73 2014 FEI 82 81 2014 IsoPPP+ 97 81 2014 Rushing S&P+ 62 115 2014 Passing S&P+ 84 37 When Oregon State has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 11 53 2014 S&P+ 18 65 2014 FEI 41 47 2014 IsoPPP+ 13 69 2014 Rushing S&P+ 8 30 2014 Passing S&P+ 45 83

That passing game, combined with Michigan's stifling defense playing at home, should be enough for the Wolverines to win comfortably. But in what fashion can they achieve victory? Does Harbaugh have to rely on passing-down conversions to Butt or Darboh to move the chains and put points on the board? Can the Wolverines offensive linemen impose their will in the run game against a weaker opponent?

The Harbaugh era is supposed to be about man-ball, crushing your foe with a physical run game not finessing your way to the end zone with the passing game. If the Wolverines can't begin to show that dimension against Oregon State then we may not see it in 2015.

For their own part, Oregon State has an interesting team with athletic true freshman Seth Collins already possessing the keys to the offense. Collins ran for 152 yards in Week 1 and it seems clear that the Beavers are going to ride the spread-option offense as far as it can take them in 2015. With four experienced lettermen back on the line as well as running back Storm Woods, they'll present an interesting test to a very stout Wolverine run defense.

The Beavers defense also totally throttled the offense of its Week 1 opponent, Weber State, but they are a very green unit going up against a very different talent level in Ann Arbor. If they throttle Michigan's offense, that'll be more than a cause for concern for Harbaugh, but an indicator that Oregon State could overachieve in 2015.

Watch for:

  • Can Michigan impose its will in the run game?
  • How much can Andersen improve the Beavers defense?
  • How does Michigan's D handle a dual-threat quarterback?

F/+ Outright Pick: Michigan

Notre Dame (-11.5) vs. Virginia -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame Virginia Proj. F/+ 14 57 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 45 43 When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 16 19 2014 S&P+ 20 19 2014 FEI 21 10 2014 IsoPPP+ 14 23 2014 Rushing S&P+ 27 10 2014 Passing S&P+ 13 28 When Virginia has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 29 73 2014 S&P+ 43 66 2014 FEI 54 68 2014 IsoPPP+ 80 86 2014 Rushing S&P+ 70 96 2014 Passing S&P+ 96 72

Competitive football between real contenders stars at 3:30 when Notre Dame travels to play Virginia. The Cavaliers went down hard in Week 1 against what might be a top-10 UCLA team, but coming back home they should be able to mount a more credible effort against the Irish than did the Texas Longhorns, who demoted their offensive coordinator quickly after Notre Dame shellacked them last Saturday.

The advanced stats tell a story of a battle when the Irish offense faces a stout Cavalier defense, and then a snooze when a nearly inept Virginia offense tries to execute against a vulnerable Notre Dame defense.

However, the Irish are much healthier on defense now after getting beaten up over the course of 2014, and Jaylon Smith is looking like a potential All-American at linebacker after dominating the Texas offense. For their part, the Cavaliers are still a ways away on offense from fielding a threatening unit, so Notre Dame should be able to control this game even if they can't put up points quickly.

Virginia was actually torched by the UCLA passing game and won't get any relief when Malik Zaire, Will Fuller, and a brilliant Notre Dame offensive line come into town. If they can't keep Fuller under wraps when the Irish feature their vertical passing game then they'll have little hope of outnumbering and taking down the Notre Dame running game.

Watch for:

  • Was Virginia just caught by surprise against UCLA or are they just overmatched on defense?
  • Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith…trust me, he's just fun to watch.
  • Malik Zaire and the Irish passing game against another well regarded defense.
  • The Notre Dame defense trying to stop a competent passing game.

F/+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame

Oklahoma (-1) vs. Tennessee -- 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma Tennessee Proj. F/+ 16 26 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 37 19 When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 12 9 2014 S&P+ 14 12 2014 FEI 18 25 2014 IsoPPP+ 11 17 2014 Rushing S&P+ 4 21 2014 Passing S&P+ 17 11 When Tennessee has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 23 35 2014 S&P+ 21 40 2014 FEI 49 64 2014 IsoPPP+ 35 17 2014 Rushing S&P+ 19 21 2014 Passing S&P+ 32 11

Now the really competitive games get going as the Sooners go on the road against #ButchPlease and his Volunteers.

Oklahoma has an interesting statistical profile that may or may not tell an accurate story, as they were a power-run offense in 2014 with a senior-laden offensive line and multiple big blocking tight ends that paved the way for a huge season from freshman tank Samaje Perine. Then they fired their offensive coordinators, graduated most of the line and both tight ends, and brought aboard Air Raid offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley while promoting Air Raider Baker Mayfield to QB1 on the depth chart. As it happens, the Volunteers pass defense looks a bit more solid than their run defense in 2015 thanks to returning Tennessee pass-rusher Derek Barnett and a very experienced secondary.

Oklahoma could not get Perine going against its Week 1 opponent, the Akron Zips, and their prospects for making headway against a much more athletic and experienced Vols front are poor. They'll likely have to depend on throwing the ball and even subbing in redshirt freshman running back Joe Mixon over Perine due to his athleticism and explosiveness in the passing game.

Meanwhile, the Sooners defense comes back largely intact save for losing star nose tackle Jordan Phillips to the NFL. Tennessee's run game absolutely mauled Bowling Green in Week 1 and could be a load for the Sooners to handle. Backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara both went over 100 yards rushing in that contest, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs was close behind with another 89.

If the Sooners can't win in the trenches on either side of the ball it's hard to see them coming out an SEC stadium with a victory.

Watch for:

  • How the Sooners' nickel defense and 215-pound end Eric Striker hold up against the Vols' pounding run game.
  • Whether the Volunteers can get pressure on Mayfield with their defensive line or if they have to blitz and leave their secondary undermanned against a loaded wide receiver corps.
  • Are "big game Bob" Stoops' Sooners fired up and armed with an aggressive game plan to attack on the road?

F/+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma

Michigan State (-3.5) vs. Oregon -- 8 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Michigan State Oregon Proj. F/+ 9 3 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 10 7 When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 9 39 2014 S&P+ 10 28 2014 FEI 14 14 2014 IsoPPP+ 6 27 2014 Rushing S&P+ 17 52 2014 Passing S&P+ 6 36 When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 2 23 2014 S&P+ 2 21 2014 FEI 3 40 2014 IsoPPP+ 2 41 2014 Rushing S&P+ 5 13 2014 Passing S&P+ 4 16

Oregon and Michigan State are both receiving talk, and statistical projection, as being potential conference champions and playoff contenders. Last year their contest established Marcus Mariota and the Ducks as a legit powerhouse while calling into question whether the Spartans' highly mimicked defense was truly bulletproof when they took on spread opponents.

This rematch in Lansing, Mich., may be defined more by what Connor Cook and the Michigan State offense can do against a rebuilding Oregon defense. The Ducks lost most of the defensive backs that helped them execute their bend-don't-break defense which relied on turnovers to kill drives and create possession advantages for their offense and made victory in shootouts nearly inevitable.

The Spartans also lost many of their skill players but return third-year starting quarterback and likely NFL draft pick Connor Cook as well as most of a bruising offensive line and excellent tight end Josiah Price.

It's hard to see a path to victory for the Ducks that doesn't include their offense getting after the Spartans again, particularly with the running game, which tore up Eastern Washington in Week 1.

Last year the Ducks neutralized some of the Spartans' aggressive blitzes because Mariota was so effective with the scramble and making quick reads in the passing game. Vernon Adams will have his work cut out trying to do the same after only a few weeks in the Oregon offense, and they'll have to be able to run the ball to avoid facing too many passing down scenarios.

The Michigan State secondary is somewhat suspect after losing cornerbacks to the NFL in consecutive seasons, so there could be potential there on standard downs as well.

Watch for:

  • Whether the Spartans secondary can keep up with the Ducks skill players.
  • Vernon Adams' ability to diagnose and attack an often overwhelming Spartans defense.
  • Two teams trying to control this game by running the ball.
  • Connor Cook Heisman moments.

F/+ Outright Pick: Oregon

LSU (-4.5) vs. Mississippi State -- 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Mississippi State Proj. F/+ 8 29 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 20 28 When LSU has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 28 32 2014 S&P+ 38 27 2014 FEI 43 17 2014 IsoPPP+ 53 44 2014 Rushing S&P+ 29 56 2014 Passing S&P+ 63 13 When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 7 20 2014 S&P+ 9 11 2014 FEI 18 20 2014 IsoPPP+ 7 12 2014 Rushing S&P+ 18 9 2014 Passing S&P+ 5 12

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LSU was missing but one piece to have a very strong team in 2014, and of course that piece was an effective quarterback who could take advantage of the way defenses had to play the LSU run game by throwing deep to a very talented wide receiver corps.

Mississippi State had a strong season running the ball with quarterback Dakari Prescott and running back Josh Robinson behind a veteran offensive line and then throwing deep off play-action. Unlike in Baton Rouge, many of the supporting pieces are now gone while Prescott returns to man the helm.

This game may simply come down to whether or not Brandon Harris is ready to be the man for the Tigers offense. After a full offseason in the program and with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, he should be far more comfortable than he was when he went 3-for-14 against Auburn a year ago, and his athleticism adds another potent and truly unneeded dimension to what was already a devastating run game.

The Mississippi State defense of 2014 was about playing Norm Parker-style conservative defense, fundamentals-focused on standard downs before bringing disguise and pressure on third down. With Manny Diaz now at the helm, expect them to maintain many of their more conservative pass schemes but with zone blitzes dialed up early and often as they look to put offenses behind the chains. With as athletic a group as Diaz inherited, there's a good chance they could cause problems for young Harris.

The Tigers defense has every reason to be as good or better than last year when they played lights-out pass defense and reasonably solid run defense. Some of the brightest stars, such as middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith and safety Jamal Adams, are back, while the defensive tackles are now veterans rather than spring chickens.

The Bulldogs return a lot of weapons as well though, and have a firm identity to plug in new faces with Prescott behind center. This will be the heavyweight bout of the day with either team hoping to key their game plan around seeing victory in this dimension of the game.

Watch for:

  • If the Bulldogs run game can open up opportunities for Prescott with the play-action passing game.
  • Is Brandon Harris ready to be an SEC starting quarterback?
  • LSU has a lot of defensive talent but a new defensive coordinator in charge -- do they play as fast under new direction?

F/+ Outright Pick: LSU

Boise State (-3.5) vs. BYU -- 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Boise State BYU 2014 Proj. F/+ 23 39 2014 Field Pos. Adv. 31 65 When Boise State has the ball Offense Defense 2015 Projected S&P+ 18 59 2014 S&P+ 13 49 2014 FEI 42 59 2014 IsoPPP+ 7 58 2014 Rushing S&P+ 12 29 2014 Passing S&P+ 11 79 When BYU has the ball Defense Offense 2015 Proj. S&P+ 43 42 2014 S&P+ 38 50 2014 FEI 26 40 2014 IsoPPP+ 47 25 2014 Rushing S&P+ 30 24 2014 Passing S&P+ 33 33

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Besides their slate in the Mountain West Conference, Boise State has three main obstacles to an undefeated season and interesting playoff argument. They have already beaten Washington, but Virginia and these BYU Cougars still await them on their non-conference schedule.

With wins over those three nationally regarded programs combined with an undefeated run in their own conference, the Broncos could put the selection committee in a very interesting situation. But first they need to beat the Cougars in Provo's altitude, which is no easy task.

BYU overcame Nebraska on the road in Week 1 with a desperate Hail Mary, although it cost them starting quarterback Taysom Hill. Meanwhile Boise barely got by Washington, relying on strong defense and a capable run game to produce the 16 points needed to secure victory.

If the Cougars are going to require the Broncos to score more than 16 points to win they'll need a strong game from Hill's backup Tanner Mangum, a 22-year-old true freshman who was a big-time recruit years ago but then took time to go on his mission before enrolling at BYU.

Mangum has a big arm that could help BYU make full use of their ridiculously sized cast of receivers (two starters that are 6-foot-5 or better) and punish opponents down the field for loading up the box against their veer-option run game.

Boise State's defense may be very solid in 2015, but there are generally not too many answers among non-AQ defenses for an offense that will spread the field with multiple 6-foot-5 receivers and throw them the ball with a 22-year-old, pro-style quarterback.

BYU's own defense is looking to rebound from 2014 when they lacked the talent in the secondary or the pass rush from their front to stop opponents on passing downs. The Broncos' passing game sputtered in Week 1, but they have experienced receivers that know how to get open against soft zone coverages of the sort that the Cougars typically employ. If their offense can make the typical Week 1 to Week 2 leap, they should be able to trade shots with Mangum and the Cougar offense.

The Broncos will need to find ways to run the ball on BYU's very tough 3-4 defensive fronts to avoid a low-scoring slugfest.

Watch for:

  • The post-Ajayi Broncos run game faces BYU's vaunted 3-4 defense.
  • How much does Broncos quarterback Ryan Finley improve in his second game as a starter?
  • Tanner Mangum and the BYU passing game, now the feature of the Cougars offense.
  • (Listen for) Announcers talk of Boise's chances at the playoffs.

F/+ Outright Pick: Boise State


Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick Ian vs. Spread Pick
Oregon State 17 Michigan Michigan Oregon State
Virginia 11.5 Notre Dame Notre Dame Notre Dame
Tennessee 1 Oklahoma Oklahoma Tennessee
Oregon 3.5 Michigan State Oregon Michigan State
Mississippi State 4.5 LSU LSU Mississippi State
Boise State 3.5 BYU Boise State BYU

(Ed. note: Due to personal obligations, Chad Peltier is unavailable to write this week's Seventh Day Adventure. We want to thank Ian Boyd from Football Study Hall for sitting in for him.)


1 comment, Last at 17 Sep 2015, 3:01pm